How did the Great Depression influence the evolution of American vernacular dance? In the Great Depression, the American dream had become a nightmare. What was once the land of opportunity was now the land of desperation. The Great Depression was an economic slump in North America, Europe, and other industrialized areas of the world that began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized Western world.
Nevertheless, it had immense impact on the evolution of American vernacular dance by bringing jazz music and dance to the masses, raising the nation’s spirit through music and dance.
The Great Depression hit hard, but it hit African Americans the hardest. They had been on the bottom rung of the economic ladder already before the Depression hit, and, although most had precious little to lose, prospects for even subsistence work were especially poor once the Depression was under way.
Many poor southern migrants continued to come north, crowding into neighborhoods already packed with people, competing for the fast-dwindling number of jobs.
Black businesses failed, crushing the entrepreneurial spirit that had been an essential element of the Negro Renaissance until then. In the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression stubbornly refused to lift, jazz came as close as it has ever come to being America’s popular music. It had a new name now, Swing, and its impact was revolutionary. Swing, which had grown up in the dancehalls of Harlem, would become the defining music for an entire generation of Americans.
Record sales slowly started to increase as Americans began frequenting establishments with jukeboxes. Radio continued to be an important source of entertainment, but motion pictures were no doubt the favorite escapist entertainment. By mid-decade, Hollywood musicals would gain great popularity, which continued unabated into the 1940s. Jazz took a hard blow, as the rest of the country did, during the first half of the 1930s. Although there was still work to be had, especially for the best musicians in New York, those in other areas of the country “scuffled,” eking out a meager existence.
Bandleaders, whose orchestras were filled with great jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, would continue to find employment, although their repertoire would include a liberal amount of popular songs. Things would begin to change by 1935, the year that marked the beginning of the “Swing Era. ” Swing music reached new, white audiences when musicians like Benny Goodman began playing swing in ballrooms and theaters in major cities in the 1930s. Following Goodman’s success, other bandleaders began featuring more jazz arrangements and jazz solos.
Soon the country was swing crazy. Trombonist Tommy Dorsey had a million-seller record with Irving Berlin’s tune “Marie. ” Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman’s clarinet rival, had a million-seller with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine. ” Dancing is a very big part of swing music. A person rarely ever thinks of swing music without swing dancing. It became popular at every event from New York’s swankiest nightclubs to school proms. Every portion of society found some form of swing music suitable for their dancing.
The term “swing dance” is commonly used to refer to a group of dances that developed concurrently with the style of jazz music in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The black community, while dancing to contemporary Jazz music, discovered dances such as the Black Bottom, Charleston and tap dance, which travelled north with Dixieland jazz to New York, Kansas City, and Chicago in the Great African American Migration of the 1920s, when rural blacks travelled north to escape persecution, Jim Crow laws, lynching and unemployment in the South due to the Great Depression.
Popular dances like the “Lindy”, “Lindy Hop” and “Jitterbug” appeared in popular nightclubs, Broadway musicals and movies like “A Day at the Races” (1937). The “Lindy Hop”, named after the pilot Charles Lindburgh’s first solo flight, was the first dance to include swinging the partner into the air, as well as jumping in sequence. Yet another famous dance that evolved was the “Big Apple”, which originated in a small southern town. A group circle dance, it gave couples the opportunity to show off, or “shine”.
It incorporated swing early swing steps and originally required a “caller”. Frankie Manning is accredited to bringing the Big Apple to New York and popularizing the dance with white culture. The popularity of these aforementioned dances during the Depression can be easily interpreted as the psychological comfort it gave of “strength in numbers” and because it was more than just a dance: it was a unifying experience that provided healing and joy at a time when there was little to celebrate.
In the late 1930s, Katherine Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the 20th century and has been called the “Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance”, production. One of her early appearances was in Cabin in the Sky, staged by George Balanchine that ran for 20 weeks in New York, with Dunham in the stunning role of “Georgia Brown”. Another famous role as a seductress during this period was the “Woman with a Cigar” from her solo role in the revue Shore Excursion.
Her sense of rhythm, theater and costuming, as well as her choreography and dancing, put serious African American vernacular dance on the map once and for all. Another example would be Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film. Audiences enjoyed his understated style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug in favor of cool and reserve. Rarely did he use his upper body, relying instead on busy, inventive feet and an expressive face.
A figure in both the Black and White entertainment worlds of his era he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s. According to Stearns’ Jazz Dance, Robinson was responsible for getting tap dance “up on its toes. ” Early tap was mostly ‘buck and wing’ a flat-footed dance style. Robinson did his dancing on the balls of the feet. Another important aspect of dance in times of the Great Depression was the dance marathons of the 1930’s, which were also known as “bunion derbies,” and “corn and callus carnivals. Promoters called them “walkathons. ” Social dancing had only recently acquired a veneer of respectability through the efforts of wholesome married dance teams like Vernon and Irene Castle. At a time when many churches still considered dancing sinful, “walkathon” was a less threatening term. Nevertheless, today we remember these endurance contests of the Great Depression as “dance marathons. ” To break the monotony of constant dancing for spectators, promoters added distractions, usually performances both by contestants and by guest artists.
They invited professional dancers and teachers to enter the contest, often paying them to participate. Specialty acts from vaudeville and burlesque, exhibition dancers, even boxing matches, were all added to the spectacle. Promoters would assure a good show by hiring eccentric and ostentatious personalities sure to create exciting situations. They arranged for “unexpected” guest appearances by local celebrities such as theatrical agents and performers. These marathons offered non-stop entertainment hosted by a Master of
Ceremonies and threaded with performances and specialty numbers, live band music, and audience participation, in addition to the contest element. For all contestants, participation in a dance marathon meant a roof over their heads and plentiful food, both scarce during the 1930s. President Herbert Hoover’s promised prosperity “just around the corner” eluded most Americans, but dance marathon contestants hung their hopes on the prize money lurking at the end of the contest’s final grind. Hollywood, in turn, also played a valuable psychological role during the Great Depression.
It provided reassurance to a demoralized nation. Even at the deepest depths of the Depression, 60 to 80 million Americans attended movies each week. Hollywood responded to the economic anxiety that dominated the lives of Americans during the Depression by producing films that maintained a self-conscious optimism. Like the recording industry, which recognized the value of the reassuring stability represented by the light, uncomplicated music of artists such as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo, movie producers also sensed that Americans wanted to forget their troubles, not be reminded of them.
Only rarely in mainstream music and film did the grim daily realities of life and the destitution of the laboring class find expression. The common hardships of love and work in the soulful tunes of Ethel Waters, Ruth Etting and Lead Belly, the uprooted American working class, black and white, used these musical forms to hold on to a sense of identity amidst the uncertainty of a changing world. Technology and mobility brought these musical traditions into contact with one another, birthing new forms of expression and cherished musical memories.
In the face of economic disaster, the fantasy world of the movies sustained a traditional American faith in individual initiative and in government and upheld a common American identity of transcending social class. It provided them with a welcome respite from their daily hardships. Musicals in the 1930’s gave people more realistic visions of aspiration and attainment. Stars such as Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire became models of strength, courage, charisma, vulnerability, and triumph as they sang and danced their way into the dispirited hearts of the American public.
During the thirties American music was forever changed by new technologies and industrial processes. The improved fidelity of phonograph recordings, electrical amplification, jukebox, radio and film coupled with aggressive marketing techniques fostered the exponential growth of the entertainment industry and the commercialization of popular music. The 1933 Repeal of Prohibition led to the opening of drinking establishments, which in the mid-thirties would make use of the recently improved technology of the jukebox to entertain and attract patrons who would listen and dance.
The processes of the recording industry fused with the technology of the radio, jukebox, and phonograph altered the music of black and white vernacular musicians from the southeastern and western states. Many regionally popular players of traditional music who were from the underclass began to see the opportunity for a new career recording their songs for a national audience. Phonograph records, jukeboxes and radio allowed the musical styles of regional musicians from all over the country to “cross-pollinate” with each other combining approaches, styles and instrumentation in new ways.
Not until the mid thirties would the recording industry began to metabolize its tenuous relationship with radio and fully recover from the economic strain of the Depression. Recording opportunities simply vanished for many underground musicians during this downturn in the industry. But the doors had been opened and it would not be long before the labels recalled the profit potential in the marketing of traditional, vernacular and ethnic musical expressions.
Nonetheless, new emerging technologies like the jukebox during the Great Depression became the one bright spot not only for the record industry, but for all people. For the public, a nickel would pay for six plays and like the movies of the day provided a few minutes escape from the depression. This product of industrial development, the jukebox was the technology largely responsible for saving the American music industry during difficult economic times. More importantly, through the jukebox Americans experienced music socially.
With the most basic of commercial exchanges, placing a nickel in the slot, Americans chose what songs they would listen to on a given night, what songs they would dance to on an evening out, what songs best provided a soundtrack for their lives at that moment. Americans literally purchased a sense of identity from a vending machine of aural memory. In conclusion, I believe that the Great Depression influenced the evolution of American vernacular dance greatly. American popular music and dance from the 1930’s reflects the cultural and social conditions that shaped the American identity during the period.
The popular music and dance of the thirties can be used as a lens to better understand the collective memory of the American people during a decade marked by the Depression, emerging technologies like jukeboxes and the growing population of cities as many Americans relocated from rural areas. It meant that millions of people all over America were able to hear and feel the music through dance. Moreover, jazz, which had always thrived in adversity and come to symbolize American freedom, would be called upon to lift the spirits and raise the morale of a frightened country.
And in the process, it would begin to break down the barriers that had separated Americans from each other for centuries. Bibliography Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, W. W. Norton & Company; 2009. Dills, Ann. Moving history/dancing cultures: a dance history reader, Wesleyan University Press, 2001. Young, William H. The Great Depression in America, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Stearns, Marshall. Jazz dance: the story of American vernacular dance, Da Capo Press, 1994.
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